[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
Charles Chaplin’s 1956 English movie AKinginNewYork begins with a mob surging into a palace shouting “We want the head of Charlot!” Or so the auteurist ear registers it for a moment—actually it’s Shahdov, not Charlot, the people want the head of. But Shahdov is played by Charlie Chaplin. Same difference. A King in New York has long been spoken of as Chaplin’s cinematic kissoff to the country that turned thumbs down on him and his MonsieurVerdoux in the late Forties when he became too politically outspoken—the wrong sort of politics—and found himself in a paternity suit as well; an assistant Attorney General of that country denied the British-born Chaplin a reentry visa after he’d gone abroad in the early Fifties, and so the man who was once the best-loved figure in the United States and probably the world elected to sit out the rest of his life in Switzerland.
[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
I can’t recall ever being so disappointed by a film.
I was surprised. After all, the black, cruel jokes Chaplin is so fond of tend to appeal to me more than the pathos; the true story of Henri Landru is a fascinating one; comedies of murder have often beguiled me, from Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets toJack Smight’s No Way to Treat a Lady;and, of course, quite simply, Verdouxhas an immense reputation. My appetite for it was whetted as far back as 1964, when I was a schoolboy and when Douglas McVay eulogized it in the November films & filming. A couple of years later, I read James Agee’s famous series of articles about the film and they impressed me as some of the finest criticism of any kind that I’d ever read, and I still feel that way. So my optimism, when BBC-TV gave the film its first-ever showing on British television in February of 1977, couldn’t have been higher.
I was left wishing James Agee had written and directed MonsieurVerdouxinstead. Horrid as it is for a grown-up film buff to discover himself agreeing with Dwight Macdonald, I find Chaplin’s film a drab and essentially false achievement. Its philosophical ideas are not carried through with anything like sufficient rigour, and certainly not with the trenchant satire that might have made them work. The Sadean justification of murder (“Numbers sanctify…”) is, frankly, juvenile (since when did two wrongs make a right?), and is made more so by the insistence on what Chaplin would no doubt feel was “good taste.” It’s hard to feel the sting of death in this movie, partly because no one in it seems very much alive apart from the Martha Raye character, and partly because we are not given the horror of murder. The meaning of slaughter is far clearer in, say, Frenzy,where Hitchcock reverses the Bonnie and Clydelaugh-and-then-gasp trick, so that our revulsion for killer Bob Rusk turns, horribly but truthfully, into a kind of complicity. Our guilty mirth at Rusk’s struggles amidst the potatoes is a kind of fellow-feeling, and if we can recognize a little bit of ourselves in a murderous madman, then we might just possibly understand the darker side of human nature a little bit better. But with MonsieurVerdoux,we are denied ambiguities. Would we have any sympathy for Verdoux if we had actually seen him polishing off his unprepossessing spouses? I doubt it; and that is, I suspect, the main reason for Chaplin’s circumspection, whether consciously or not. He denies himself the hard part, skirts round the really tricky questions. Monsieur Verdoux becomes a figurehead for fuzzy ideas about morality and stops being a real human being. I didn’t sympathise with him a bit.
British music hall comedian Charles Chaplin made his screen debut in February 1914, playing a threadbare dandy with all physical cues of a cad in the Mack Sennett one-reel comedy Making a Living. The Tramp was born in his second screen appearance—the signature costume (baggy pants, tight cutaway coat, too-big shoes, too-small derby, bamboo cane and toothbrush mustache) built by Chaplin for his role in Mabel’s Strange Predicament—but audiences first saw him in the split-reel special Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal., an improvised film shot in an afternoon with Chaplin’s tramp character constantly intruding on newsreel crews trying to shoot the races. Fitting that a comedy based on the fascination of movies and the yearn for celebrity via the screen introduced the figure who would become the biggest movie star in the world in a few short years.
All this biographical information and historical detail is explored in Jeffrey Vance’s excellent essay and film notes in the accompanying 40-page booklet of Flicker Alley’s Chaplin At Keystone (Flicker Alley), a remarkable box set that collects the 33 surviving shorts (one-reel, two-reel and a couple of shorter split-reel films) and the feature-length comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, that he made for Sennett’s Keystone Film Company in 1914. (Only one Chaplin Keystone remains lost, but Vance helpfully provides notes on the short anyway.) Over the course of the year 1914, working with Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand and the rest of the directors and ensemble players in the Keystone company, Chaplin evolved from screen comedy debutante to Keystone star, even though he never received screen credit. In fact, no one at Keystone got screen credit or even images in the posters (Sennett wanted to keep them interchangeable) but Chaplin stood out and this distinctive (yet nameless to them) figure was a sought-after attraction. The exhibitors, who knew the value of a star, would simply put a cut-out of Chaplin out to let people know another of his Keystone films was playing, and audiences responded.